It seems the incredible benefits of brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) are becoming more and more well known by the minute. But how do you increase BDNF levels naturally and boost brain function, mood and memory in the process?
Luckily, there are a number of things you can do to naturally boost your brain’s BDNF levels and improve neurological function.
If you know my story, you know why I am always looking for everything possible to optimize my neurological function. I have known about the benefits of BDNF for a while now, but only in the last few years have I really started to understand how important lifestyle factors are in boosting the body’s levels of this incredibly important brain-protecting molecule.
What is BDNF?
BDNF is basically like Miracle Grow for your brain. A critically important brain growth hormone, BDNF plays a key role in making new brain cells (neurogenesis) as well as improving the connection between existing brain cells (neuroplasticity). In essence, BDNF improves the function of neurons, helps them grow and sprout new connections and protects them against cell death.
Let’s just say it is definitely a good thing to increase BDNF levels.
Stress (cortisol) and inflammation lower BDNF. It is definitely a bad thing to have low levels of BDNF. Low levels of BDNF have been found in a number of different neurological conditions including:
- Anorexia Nervosa
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
Ok, so more BDNF is good and less is bad. But, how do you increase BDNF naturally?
6 Things That Have Been Proven to Increase BDNF
I should point out that although we do not specifically address it, if you are following the anti-inflammatory clean eating diet we outline in our book, then you are already doing all but numbers five and six below. Here are the things you can do to increase BDNF…
You do not need to run a marathon, but if you want to optimize brain function and also increase BDNF, exercise is key. Numerous studies have shown exercise to boost BDNF levels, but incorporating short-duration, high-intensity intervals is especially beneficial. It is also important to point out that unlike the immediate endorphin response that you might experience from a workout session, increased levels of BDNF don’t happen immediately. Some hypothesize that it may take up to a few months before you’ll experience a noticeable increase in BDNF after starting a workout program. The memory and mood center in the brain, the hippocampus, is the most sensitive to the effects of increased BDNF levels from exercise.
2. Get Enough of the Omega-3 DHA
The long-chain omega-3 fat, DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), found in fish oil will also increase BDNF levels. If you are vegan, do not eat fish or do not supplement with a high quality fish oil then you will have a very hard time getting optimal amounts of DHA. Your body can in theory make DHA from the plant-based omega-3, LNA (alpha-linolenic acid), found in foods like walnuts, chia and flaxseeds, But the conversion process is thwarted by a number of factors, including too much omega-6 fat from vegetable oils. Ideally you want to get about 1,000 mg of DHA daily, which can be very difficult unless you supplement with a high quality pharmaceutical grade fish oil. ***Note: If you take our Clean Cuisine Supplements you will be getting 1080 mg of DHA.***
3. Take Specific Probiotics
Believe it or not, certain beneficial bacteria in our gut can also increase BDNF levels. By eating certain probiotic-rich foods or taking probiotic supplements, you can stimulate your body’s production of this brain protective hormone. Specifically lactobacillus helveticus, bifidobacterium longum (this strain is found in our Clean Cuisine probiotics) and lactobacillus brevis have all been shown to increase BDNF. However, it is important to note that when it comes to a healthy gut microbiome, diversity is key. That means you do not just want to overdose on any one particular probiotic strain. You want to eat a wide variety of different probiotic and prebiotic rich foods for optimal gut and brain health.
4. Add Turmeric
One of the world’s most powerful health-promoting spices, turmeric has been found to increase BDNF levels as well as enhance brain cell rejuvenation, cognitive function and mood. We have lots of turmeric-rich clean eating recipes on the blog, but three of the most popular are: Detox Smoothie, Slow Cooker Chicken Recipe and the Turmeric Salad Dressing. It can be difficult to get enough turmeric from food alone though, so I also take a turmeric supplement. I have switched brands a few times, but I recently discovered Me First brand Turmeric and I truly feel I can tell a difference in my hip (if you know the full story behind Clean Cuisine, you may recall the hip surgies I have had.) For what it is worth, turmeric is a potent anti-inflammatory painkiller and safe alternative to Advil.
5. Add Superfood Mushroom Cordyceps
When I recently wrote about the benefits of cordyceps for enhancing mood and energy, I did not know the superfood mushrooms could also increase BDNF levels. But apparently, a 2014 study published in Evidence Based Complimentary and Alternative Medicine showed that cordyceps increased BDNF. In addition, cordyceps was shown to reduce inflammatory markers in the hippocampus and increase 5-HTP (a precursor to serotonin and norepinephrine). It is no surprise this study also demonstrated that cordyceps has positive benefits on mood and memory levels. I find the easiest way to consume cordyceps is in powdered form. I simply add a spoonful to hot water or make my Cordyceps broth recipe. You can purchase organic cordyceps mushroom powder from Amazon or at your local natural foods store.
6. Relax (and Breathe!!)
Research shows activating the vagus nerve leads to an increase in BDNF and improved neurogenesis. The vagus nerve flows from your brain through your neck, right into your chest and through your diaphragm. There are a number of ways to activate the vagus nerve, but relaxing and deep breathing will definitely do the trick. You can even try it right this minute! Take a deep breath into your belly to the count of five, pause for one second, then breathe out slowly to the count of five. Keep your belly soft. Turn away from the computer and do this 10 times and notice how much more relaxed you feel. Activating the vagus nerve turns on the relaxation response, which in turn increases levels of BDNF. Nifty, huh?
LOOKING TO CLEAN UP YOUR LIFESTYLE & ADOPT AN ANTI-INFLAMMATORY DIET?
Be sure to check out our Clean Cuisine book! The book outlines an 8-Week Anti-Inflammatory Diet and lifestyle plan, including fitness program, nutritional supplement regimen, recipes and more!